Hosting Fury vs Joshua in Saudi Arabia would be a tragedy for British sports fans

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The blockbuster fight between Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury scheduled for August this year has hit a hurdle following an arbitration hearing ordered that Fury must first face Deontay Wilder again. Whether or not it happens this year or next, the fight which all British boxing fans have been waiting for will eventually happen.

The tragedy for these fans is that it will happen in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi Arabian state has been criticised for its ‘sportwashing’ in recent years. The term has been used to describe the Saudis using sport to project to the Western world that they are liberal, western-facing and open for investment.

According to a report by the human rights organisation Grant Liberty they have spent at least $1.5bn on ‘sportswashing’ in recent years. By doing this, they are attempting to take western attention away from their human rights violations and focus it upon elite sport.

The choice of venue for the fight has therefore largely been condemned. Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose death has been heavily linked with the Saudi State, has been a vocal critic of Saudi ‘sportswashing’ and has urged the organisers to look elsewhere for a venue.

Amnesty International have also warned organisers against using Saudi Arabia, citing the cases of Khashoggi, the jailing of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul and the bombing of civilians in nearby Yemen as examples of their human rights abuses.

It isn’t an issue that is exclusive to boxing, either. The Saudi Cup is the world’s richest horse-racing event, Formula 1 has just signed a ten-year contract with them worth over £500 million, and a Saudi group has backed a European Super League style breakaway from the PGA Tour in Golf.

Newcastle United were the subject of a takeover bid from a consortium containing deputy prime minister Mohammed bin Salman, who has been linked with the death of Khashoggi, and the Spanish and Italian Super Cups have been based over there in recent years.

Elite sport is in danger of being left on the wrong side of history

So when Fury vs Joshua was announced, there was little surprise that the Saudis had placed the biggest offer on the table. After all, Eddie Hearn has conducted business with them before. He was criticised for choosing the Saudis to host the rematch of Joshua vs Ruiz Jr in 2019 but defended the regime in the aftermath.

The lucrative contracts which come with these events are making sports like boxing seem morally bankrupt as a result.

It’s also a kick in the teeth to British boxing fans who have been unable to attend elite sport for well over a year now. As the UK begins to ease lockdown restrictions and fans can return to sports venues, hosting the fight on home soil would be a ginormous lift for the hospitality industry over here.

In a summer where the semi-finals and final of the European Championships are being played in London, hosting the biggest British fight in recent memory would be a huge event for the sports and entertainment industry. Instead, Hearn and the other organisers have chosen the soulless paycheck of Saudi Arabia over the British boost it would provide.

Unfortunately, it’s a plague that is difficult to cure. Despite the moral issues which come with hosting events in Saudi Arabia, as long as they’re willing to pay the ludicrous sums of money, big sporting events will continue to be held there.

Just like the proposed European Super League breakaway in football, the organisers are only interested in which avenue is going to provide the most revenue. Elite sport is in danger of being left on the wrong side of history if it continues to associate with regimes like the Saudis.

Image: Ho Han via Flickr

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